Different Culture, Different Time Frame

I am not an anthropologist, yet I have been observing different time frame concepts in different cultures. It is just really fascinating, to learn how stereotypes ‘suddenly make sense’ when you find the root of them: cultural difference.

Have you ever wondered why Indonesians seem to be always ‘ngaret’ (rubber time, not punctual)? I have come up with my own theories.

As I said before, I am not an anthropologist, so I am open with any suggestions and discussions with you about this matter. As the biggest Muslim populated country in the world, Islam has influenced Indonesia in many ways. One of them is, how praying time has become an acceptable way of defining time among people.

It is really common to hear, “I will meet you after Asr (in Indonesia this period starts around 3:00 p.m., until the sun sets).”

What this person really means, is right after Asr adzan (the call to do Asr prayer). However, since the time range is really wide, it is normal to see people coming at 5:00 p.m., with the excuse that it is still Asr time.

I need to emphasize that there is no problem with using praying time as a way of telling time; the problem is how people interpret it. The wide flexibility and time range has made people use time in their convenience, without really considering others.

In addition, since Java, as the most populated island in the country has become more crowded, it is not only in Jakarta where the traffic is unpredictable. Although someone promises you to come at 1:00 p.m., the traffic could change everything. You are lucky enough if the person is considerate, willing to head to meeting place earlier, and arrives within one hour of your scheduled meeting time. Remember that it is not always the case.

It is actually even worse, because this time frame characteristic is not only an individual thing, but a systemic thing. You rarely find an on-time public transportation, and it always takes a while when you need to run errands in a governmental office.

That might be why Indonesians are a lot more flexible in terms of planning stuff, and seem ‘slow’. They are slow, because they know that everyone else is slow. So, if they are the only ones in rush, they will be disappointed because they will not make any difference.

Just count, how many things you can get done in a day in Indonesia. You go to a bank, there is a long line, and you need to wait for at least half hour. Internet banking is not really an option, because most people still trust face-to-face transaction better. You go to a market to do some grocery shopping, the traffic is crowded. You go to a meeting by public transportation, the train is late by an hour, and the person you are meeting is also late. Combo.

This reminds me of something. When I came back to Indonesia this year, I was meeting someone. I asked the person what time one could meet me, and this person told me a time range (after Zuhr, a praying time between around noon to 3:00 p.m.). I forced this person to give me an exact time, but this one still told me, after Zuhr.

Another thing, I also had a meeting with others, and I told them that I would be late. By late, I meant 10 minute late. When I came to the meeting place (8 minute late, fiuh!), I was surprised that I was the first one to come. The others came 30 minutes later, without being sorry, thought that they were still within ‘on-time tolerance range’.

These two examples indicate the existence of different time frame that different cultures have. So, how is it different in other countries?

I would not put the United States as the most on-time country in the world. It is sometimes okay to be late for five minutes with legitimate reasons. However, people are aware of how much they need to do in a day, so they do not waste time by being ‘slow’. You can see it clearly from the way Americans walk in pedestrians, and comparing them with how Indonesians walk. Of course, it also depends on which city in the States you are in. New Yorkers are famous with their really-fast-walking, and how their body languages indicate they are always in a rush. New Mexican, for instance, is slower, but is not too slow.

Germans, of course, beat Americans in this matter. No matter how much I have tried to walk super fast, I cannot beat Germans. No matter where it is, in the city, countryside, or suburban, everyone walks fast without showing that they are in a rush.

German punctuality is also on top of the list. They don’t meet in hourly/ half-hourly/ quarterly basis like Indonesians. “Let’s meet at ten,” sounds just as normal as, “Let’s meet at 9:40.” But in Indonesia, if someone wants to meet you at 9:40, for instance, they will look at you strangely. Then, they will say, “Let’s make it either 9:30 or 10:00.”

Just like before, it is also affected by how transportation system works. Bahn (German word for train) can come at 10:47, or 9:23, and people are used to it. 10:47 means 10:47, and 9:23 means 9:23. Although some InterCity and InterCity Express trains may experience some delays, you know how much the delay is by using the real-time application on your smartphone and they will also announce it in the train station, and thus, you can make further arrangement with your plan. 80%-90% of the trains are on time, if not early, though. I also heard rumors that if the train is late by more than one hour, DB (Deutsche Bahn) will need to reimburse the ticket payment.

It is nothing like the Japanese system, though, from what I heard. I met Kyoko, my Japanese friend from UWC, in Bremen, on my second day of being there. Transportation system in Japan, especially in Tokyo, is more punctual than in Europe, and that’s why she gets really annoyed when the train is late just by 1-2 minutes.

Don’t ask about how much things you can get done in these countries. While you are in the train, you can finish your bank transaction through internet banking system, and you can also order stuff online. Grocery shopping can be done on your way home, because some train stations have quite big supermarkets, or you can also ride your car to go to supermarket because there is no such thing as traffic jam. If there is no exceptional thing happening, most meetings are on-time, because you respect others’ time, so do they.

In one side, it is actually nice that Indonesians are more relaxed and less stressed (well, not really, especially regarding the traffic jam). However, if you see time as an asset, then, we have wasted so much time. More than how much BBM (gasoline) we waste.

Don’t ask me how to make Indonesians value their time that they waste unconsciously more. I think it is everyone’s homework.


4 thoughts on “Different Culture, Different Time Frame

  1. I think the reason why Indonesian are always be late is their mindset. Since we were kid, we have set the mind that everyone is always late. So, when we want to make it on time we usually think twice since we would wait longer if we take on time. There are two options. First is arriving on time and wait longer. Two is arriving late


  2. setuju,, di indonesia telat sudah semacam budaya yang sudah mengakar..telat 30 menit bahkan berjam jam sudah biasa dan dianggap sudah lumrah..
    ya memang sering kita dengar kalau merancanakan sesuatu misalkan ketemuan pasti bilangnya setelah dzuhur atau ashar terdengar sudah di tentukan waktunya..padahal absurb entah tepatnya jam berapa pastinya..
    harus dimulai dari diri sendiri membiasakan tepat waktu ya walaupun menghadapi lingkungan yang tidak tepat waktu..dan tahap selanjutnya harus banyak bersabar..individu ontime bertemu dengan yang tidak ontime pastinya akan terjadi keributan dan menimbulkan masalah baru


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